David Young has proven his talent at organizing a strike. Now Hollywood is about to judge him on his abilities as a strategist.
As the Writers Guild’s chief negotiator, will Young grab this opportunity to craft a deal with the companies, or will the strike go on? A third option is that he could send the scribes back to work for a period of time while negotiations continue.
It’s no surprise that Young, a little-known Hollywood outsider who has emerged as one of the most powerful figures in town, has been characterized as everything from a provocateur to a Trotskyite.
But the 49-year-old guild newcomer — he joined the WGA three years ago as an organizing director after 15 years campaigning on behalf of the Teamsters and garment and construction workers — isn’t about to apologize for his style, which observers note takes a page from the AFL-CIO playbook.
“My goal is to get a fair deal,” Young said. “That requires us to stand up for our rights.”
If Hollywood was making a movie about the ongoing strike, Central Casting couldn’t have picked a better candidate than Young. He was born in Pasadena, the fourth of six children, into a third-generation construction union family.
“I grew up in a household where the values of hard work and the Catholic faith’s respect for the value of labor were fundamentals,” he said.
His parents were children of the Depression, and they were poor. But they were intellectuals, and they believed in the value of a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.
“They were very concerned about the question of human dignity for religious reasons,” said Young, who left home to attend the U. of San Diego, a Catholic college.
The former choirboy made national news in 1996 and ’97 for his role as the organizer with Unite (the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees) who spearheaded a campaign against Guess jeans. Teaming up with Common Threads, a pro-labor activist group, Unite picketed Rodeo Drive and held readings of poetry and fiction at Santa Monica’s legendary (but now defunct) lefty bookstore Midnight Special. The rhetoric was fierce enough that Guess actually filed suit, naming Young and Edna Bonacich, a nationally known labor expert, as co-defendants. The company withdrew the suit before any hearings.
In a town obsessed with wealth, Young has drawn scoffs from industry figures for those blue-collar sensibilities. He eschews the Armani uniform for blazers, button-down shirts and jeans. He doesn’t possess the booming orator’s voice common among politicians. But he does get passionate on the stump during his rare rally appearances.
For all the fanfare generated by the writers strike, however, Young has managed to keep a relatively low profile. He rarely shows up on the studio picket lines.
But when he does speak, his words are magnified and carry a life of their own. A recent profile in the L.A. Times quoted Young as saying he was being treated like “a rock star.” The offhand remark sparked a swift and angry response from the antiguild blogosphere.
And he hasn’t won over any of his detractors with his rabble-rousing anticorporate rhetoric.
“We’re involved in a huge struggle,” Young said at a Nov. 9 rally outside Fox Plaza that guild reps said was the largest mobilization ever mounted by WGA West, with more than 4,000 participants. “We’re part of the bigger struggle of the middle class and the power concentration in this country. The middle class is (gradually losing) pension and health benefits, overtime and unemployment benefits. … It’s time to put a stop to that.”
He continued: “As power has been concentrated into six companies who control everything we read and hear, writers and talent are being strangled. Brothers and sisters, it’s time to take a stand. I’m here to tell you on day five, we are winning this strike. Our goal is to negotiate. It will be our goal everyday until we bring you back a fair contract. … Here’s my message to you: Suck it up. Stick it out. We shall prevail.”
Guild members are impressed with the job that Young, who is not a writer himself, has done as an organizer, but some have privately questioned his ability to negotiate in an industry with its own unique way of doing business. Publicly, however, scribes are united in their support of Young.
“He’s very dedicated, very smart, very passionate, and he really takes his responsibility seriously,” said Neal Baer, exec producer of “Law & Order: SVU” and a member of WGA West’s negotiating committee. “He’s been very open to listening to (writers) and our opinion and what we want out of this negotiation.”
As for questions about Young’s ability to negotiate, Baer said, “There’s been nothing to negotiate until now. … He hasn’t caved like (WGA negotiators) in the past, and they’re not used to that. It’s good to have someone like that working for writers.”
But one top talent agent who’s been in close contact with guild officials offered a different perspective.
“He’s a tremendous organizer. Look at how well this strike has been organized,” the agent said. “But I’m not sure if he’s of Hollywood enough to understand the real issues at stake and the give-and-take that has historically gone on in these negotiations. The way contracts are negotiated in Hollywood is much different than the way you would handle talks between carpenters and home builders.”
Bonacich, who’s also a sociology professor emeritus at UC Riverside, has been friends with Young for nearly 18 years. They became acquainted over their common mission to improve working conditions for garment workers, he as a lead organizer for the garment workers union, she as an activist.
Their collaborations have continued into his WGA years. In his early months on the job, the two spoke for about an hour and a half each week — “just to assess what kind of questions he needed to research, that kind of thing,” Bonacich explained.
The producers and even those within the WGA and in other unions have painted a picture of Young as an iron-fisted union boss unacquainted with the mores of Hollywood. Bonacich said that’s an easy conclusion to reach, but an inaccurate one.
“He sees a lot of similarities between the writers and garment workers,” she said. “He describes Hollywood as having an ‘exploded production system,’ ” in which independent contractors work for production shingles that are quasi-autonomous subsets of the congloms.
Bonacich praised Young’s intellectualism and thoughtfulness.
“He’s a modest person who never blows his own horn,” she said. “He saw the hollowing out of America’s middle class as a disaster and reacted to it personally. That passion is what is still operating in him now. These companies are making obscene amounts of money, and he believes it is at the expense of the middle class.”
(Cynthia Littleton in Hollywood contributed to this report.)